Making decisions that make sense: 3 nonfiction books

covers of featured literary nonfiction
Three very different works of literary nonfiction.

From my third quarter literary non-fiction reading, I have three paperbacks to recommend, which each use true historical accounts to illustrate each author’s thesis. None of the books is ponderous reading, but each is likely to present some challenge for teens or young adult readers, beginning with the fact that none of the three is about pleasant subjects. However, each of the books tackles an important topic and each could be used by teachers in several disciplines, either individually or as a team with each teacher contributing the perspective from their own discipline.

Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw. Delta, 1998. 412 pages. Paperback
Greatest generation book cover
He went overseas. She stayed behind.

The Greatest Generation is TV journalist Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who served in America’s armed forces during World War II. Brokaw presents a scrapbook-like collection of his interviews with military personnel and the families they left behind. Combat plays a minor part in their war years’ experiences.

I’d hoped to find The Greatest Generation useful for classroom use, but I’m not sure today’s high school and college students would see the characters in the same light Brokaw does.  His stories are snapshots of what would be today’s students’ great-great-grandparents. The names of most of the famous people Brokaw tells about would draw a blank stare from today’s students.

I’m not sure young people today would understand why Brokaw admires heroes who rejected the spotlight: American culture no longer values reticence. And in some ways, even to me, Brokaw’s adulation seems overly sentimental (as well as overly long).

Stories in the book that are most likely to gain traction with young people are those about people who were discriminated against during WWII: women, Blacks, and Japanese.  Because Brokaw’s work is relatively unemotional reportage, students might not find even these true stories understandable unless a savvy teacher pairs them with fictional accounts of similar situations.

Blunder by Zachery Shore

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Zachary Shore. Bloomsbury, 2008. 260 p. Paperback

Cover of Shore's book "Blunder"Blunder is a book about how people think and why their thinking goes wrong, even if they are very smart people with very good intentions.  Zachary Shore approaches his topic as an historian, rather than as a cognitive psychologist, using famous (and some infamous) historical figures to show how and why leaders in fields such as government, the military, and business made bad decisions with widespread impact.

Shore devotes one chapter to each of eight different types of blunders. He gives the blunders memorable names like “Exposure Anxiety,” which he defines as the fear of being seen as weak, and “Static Cling,” the refusal to accept a changing world. Readers won’t have to look further than each week’s news to some authority figure somewhere in the world making the blunders today.

Shore draws heavily on his knowledge of 20th century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 War on Terror.  I suspect today’s teens and young adults would have little familiarity with those events. They probably would more readily grasp stories of individuals dealing with issues of narrower impact, such as unhealthy eating or depression.

Shore devotes a final chapter to how individuals can mitigate the effects of their own blundering impulses.

Blunder would be a good book for use by classes in two or more different disciplines, such as history, psychology, and English. Such use would allow students to get direction from three perspectives about how to understand and use Shore’s insights.

Voices from the Holocaust, Jon E. Lewis, ed.

Voices from the Holocaust. Edited by Jon E. Lewis. Skyhorse, 2012. Paper. 305 pp.
Cover of Voices from the Holocaust
Concentration camp survivors freed by Allied forces.

Anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany; Hitler made it government policy.  Germans readily accepted it because they blamed Jews for their defeat in World War I. Anti-Semitism was Hitler’s way to make Germany great again.

Editor Jon E. Lewis arranges historical documents in chronological order, without comment other than to identify the writers, if known.  Beginning with the years 1933-38, the documents reveal how outsiders initially saw the SS as a sadistic type of criminal gang, only later realizing they were getting ready for a war against their enemies, including the Jews within their borders.

Part II (covering events from 1939 until Jan. 19, 1942) shows Germany setting up its extermination program. Documents in this section include Rudolf Hess’s description of the Zykon B gas trial at Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1941, at which a sickened Himmler, who had never before seen dead people, had to be led away.

Part III is devoted to the Final Solution, 1942-1946. It includes diary accounts of deportations to concentrations camps and descriptions of conditions in the camps. When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen, there were 35,000 unburied corpses and about 30,000 living inmates.

One of the most poignant stories in Voices is that told by Franciscek Zabecki about an incident he observed at the Treblinka Railway station in which an SS man’s dog found a baby in a thicket beside its dead mother. The dog whimpered and licked the baby, refusing to kill it. The SS beat the dog, killed the baby, and finally dominated the dog into obedience.

Voices ends with a list taken from the Nazi’s own records of the estimated number of Jews killed, listed by both country and by the percentage of the Jewish population annihilated.

It might be good to pair Anne Frank’s Diary with Voices from the Holocaust to show students that Anne Frank’s misery was a broken fingernail compared to what other Jews experienced.

what to look for in literary nonfiction
Literary nonfiction works that include illustrations are a plus.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Packed sentences to be unpacked as writing prompts

Good writers have an uncanny ability to pack a great deal of experience into a single sentence. Today I’m going to offer writing teachers three quotations from three very different sources from which mature teens and adult students can choose one to unpack and share how the truth of the quoted passage can be applied to some living person (or group) or to some situation in the world right now.

similarly shaped black blocks of varying sizesHere are the three items with a note about the source of each one.

A dad’s advice

In John Galswothy’s novel To Let, Jolyon Forsyte says this to his son, who is 20 and in love:

Wishes father thought but they don’t breed evidence.

A widow’s observation

Mrs. Cartwright, an elderly widow who has just lost her husband, says this to Barnaby Gaitlin, the central character of Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet:

Isn’t it ridiculous how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings?

An historian’s question

Who can say how much a man believes when he has an actor’s temperament and a demagogue’s faith in numbers?

Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks asks this question in his  1936 book The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  The man of whom he is speaking is  George Bancroft, whose multi-volume History of the United States began to appear in 1834.

What students must do

Each of the three sentences conveys more than its words literally mean. They convey something of the attitude of the speaker and his/her relationship to the person or persons alluded to in the quotation. Students need to take into account the context in which the words are spoken.

With an assignment like this, I often have students pair off and take 10 minutes of class time to discuss first impressions of each of the options. Hearing a different voice than their own sometimes sharpens a student’s perspective. 

I suggest giving students a limit of 300 words to explain the meaning of the quote they chose and the contemporary person or situation to which they think the quoted passage bears a kinship.

Value of this assignment

This assignment is a good segue from a writing course that’s been focused for a half year on nothing but nonfiction reading and writing to a course that pulls in both literary nonfiction and fiction as writing topics. Used in that manner, the assignment could be used as a benchmark to allow students to track their progress in understanding literary writing. (By benchmark, I mean that you record the grades to show entry-point skill. Course grades should be determined by end-of-course performance and should drop early score when students are figuring out what to do.)

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Two young people’s true adventures

My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.

West with the Night

Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5

Beryl Markham in aviator attireWest with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but,  from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.

Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”

Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”

Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.

In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.

photo of Markham's downed plane
Markham’s crashed plane shares space with Hemingway’s praise.

Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.

When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare

Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8

Shakespeare peeks from right hand side of old manuscriptIf students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.

Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.

His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.

William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.

William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However,  he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.

William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.

Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.

Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career  “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery”  in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”

 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pandemics in historical perspective

photo of armistice celebrationI intend to recommend Garrett Peck’s The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath among my second quarter literary nonfiction picks, but since Covid-19 has made Peck’s information about the “Spanish flu” pandemic that began during World War I timely now, I’ll share some passages that got my attention—who knew there was an army installation called Camp Funston?— and save my overall comments for July 3.

Because it’s hard to get books now, I’ve quoted passages that English or social students teachers in particular might find useful to help students look at current events in an historical perspective. (Book details below.)

Precursor to the influenza epidemic: measles

As conscripts and enlistees were assembled to go to war, “close proximity became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Measles struck the U. S. Army in late 1917, killing 5,741 soldiers from secondary infections, mostly pneumonia.”  (p. 174)

The “Spanish flu” epidemic began in Kansas

The so-called Spanish flu “probably began in Haskell County, Kansas in January 1918, then soon spread to Camp Funston (now part of Fort Riley) in March.”  The flu spread when soldiers were transferred, principally via New York City, for transport in cramped shipboard quarters to France. (p.174)

The name Spanish flu was given to the influenza outbreak because the King of Spain got sick from it. Prior to that, the flu hadn’t made headlines because the press in the U.S., Great Britain, France and their allies was censored. “Spain was not at war, their press was not censored.”  (p. 174)

The initial flu outbreak wasn’t particularly deadly. “Most people recovered after three days.” (p. 174)

The Midwest virus turned lethal in Boston

The first lethal strain of the flu virus appeared at Camp Devens near Boston.
“People suffered severe headaches and bodily pain. Bodies turned blue like they were being strangled, while victims coughed up blood and their eardrums ruptured. Many became delirious. The deadly influenza could kill someone in half a day. The flu was especially lethal for young adults, whose vigorous immune systems filled their lungs with fluid and white cells, resulting in higher numbers of deaths from pneumonia.” (p.175)

“Influenza struck the nation’s capital with a vengeance in fall 1918. Thousands were sickened….hospitals ran out of space…morgues soon ran out of coffins. Gravediggers were in short supply as well….About 3,500 people in Washington, D.C. died from influenza.” (p. 176)

Flu was more lethal than war

In World War I, “more American troops were killed by influenza than by German bullets.” (p. 190)

Influenza continued after the Great War ended

“A third wave of influenza would strike [America] as the virus mutated again, but it was not nearly as deadly….People continued getting sick into 1920 and even beyond, though the virus was losing its virulence.” p. 176

The flu went global

“The influenza of 1918 killed at least twenty-one million people worldwide, more than the combat deaths from the Great War. Later estimates ranged from fifty to one hundred million deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 675,000 people died from the flu. The influenza was the deadliest plague in human history.” (p. 176)

About Garrett Peck’s book

Garrett Peck. The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath. Pegagus Books ©2018. 415 p. ISBN 978-68177-878-5 garrettpeck.com

History and English teachers will find lots of “trivia” that they can use to make the events and the literature of the first quarter of the 20th century come to life for students.

People who care about book design will want to hold a copy of the book. The cover design is by Faceout Studio, Charles Brock. The photo is a familiar one of the welcome given troops returning from World War I.  The lettering is embossed so you can read the letters with your fingers.

This content previously appeared on my PenPrompts blog.

 

What is last nonfiction book you read?

What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?

shelves of nonfiction books
Some of my nonfiction shelved where it belongs instead of lying on the kitchen table.

Tell me about that book

Was that book:

  • literary nonfiction
  • on a topic related to the subject you teach?
  • a how-to book?
  • true crime?
  • a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
  • a history book?
  • something you just thought sounded interesting?

Did you read anything I might be interested in?

What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?

What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?

What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?

Would you read another book on the same topic?

Would you look for another book by the same author?

Have you recommended the book to someone else?

Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?

Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.

Why your answers matter to you

The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.

Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.

Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.

Why your answer matters to me

As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.

You, for example.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.

If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list.  I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Three types of nonfiction

discarded books on the pavement
Not every nonfiction book is literary nonfiction. Some are trash.

English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.

An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.

All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful

The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.

The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual.  Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.

Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.

You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.

Practical nonfiction is useful information

Cover of "What Great Teachers Do Differently"
An informational nonfiction text.

One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read  is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.

A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.

Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.

Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.

Literary nonfiction is alluring

3 literary nonfiction books
These literary nonfiction books are described in an April 5, 2019 blog post.

Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction.
Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.

Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.

First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.

Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.

The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.

Teach both practical and literary nonfiction

You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.

We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.

Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.

And it can open students to the world.

Markus Clemens

Literary nonfiction about slavery, Africa and ethics

covers of 3 works of literary fiction
Recommended literary nonfiction reading for 2019 third quarter

Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Photo of Cudjo Lewis on front coverver of Barraccoon
Barracoon
contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.

Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.

Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.

Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.

Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view.  It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.Man paddles canoe in photo superinposed on map of the Congo River

Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”

It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.

Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.

The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.

Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.

Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.

Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.

a two-faced angel-demon image at center of front cover
Two-faced, two-minded

At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?

In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.

The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication.  For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.

His focus on communications  is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.

The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.

Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of  Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.

More literary nonfiction for students

dust jackets of 3 literary nonfiction novels read 2nd quarter 2019

It’s once again time to recommend some literary nonfiction that could be used with high school teens or adult students.  I look for books that:

  • Are well-written, but not stuffy
  • Have some images in them
  • Tie-in to academic work, current events, or students’ interests
  • Can often be found in libraries
  • Readily available discounted or secondhand

Here are my three recommendations from my second quarter nonfiction reading.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

After being beat in his attempt to plant the British flag on the South Pole by a Norwegian, Sir Earnest Shackleton determined that the first expedition to cross Antarctica would be British.

South is Shackleton’s record of that heroic failure which played out in polar ice at the bottom of the world as other heroic British failures occurred in the trenches in France.

Shackleton’s record is riveting. Men suffered from cold and their own body heat, from malnutrition, injuries, and boredom.

The final third of the book, which Shackleton compiled from notes by members of separate party, lacks the impact of personal experience.

I wouldn’t recommend South as a book for all-class reading. (The paperback’s text is blurry like bad photocopies, and long paragraphs combine technical terms with British slang.)

South is, however, a book that a few students interested in science, history, geography, or psychology might dip into. The photos should interest just about anyone.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, ©2016 Skyhorse Publishing. 380 p. [paper]

The Disaster Profiteers

John C. Mutter was a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

That event led Mutter to study the social sciences to understand why natural disasters are disastrous in ways that have little to do with their physical consequences.

Mutter reached the conclusion,  “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Natural disasters do some good in, for example, destroying unsafe infrastructure. Even those “good” effects, Mutter saws, hurt the poor far more than they do the more affluent and their negative impacts affect the poor for far longer.

The Disaster Profiteers would be good literary nonfiction for older teens, particularly those in dual enrollment programs, and for adults in post-secondary training.

Mutter does a great job of making the science of natural disasters understandable. His presentation of how economists measure the scale of disasters is less readily grasped: A national economy isn’t as visual as a national disaster. But with help from some informal writing prompts, students could identify and master the big ideas.

The images in the book are primarily graphs, charts, and maps.

The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer by John C. Mutter. ©2015 St. Martin’s Press. 281 p.

Profiles in Folly

Unlike the other two literary nonfiction books discussed here, Alan Axelrod’s Profiles in Folly is a not a single story, but a collection of 35 magazine-length “cautionary tales” about bad decisions and the people who made them.

Some of the bad decisions were made by political leaders, others by businessmen, military leaders, and engineers.

The stories cover decisions from 1250 BC (the Trojan Horse) to 2005 (George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina). Topics include smoking, the space shuttle, planned obsolescence, and the Pony Express.

Profiles in Folly would lend itself to a half-year or full-year high school project involving multiple faculty who assign students certain of the chapters to read, discuss, and write about in the context of a particular class.

There are no images in the book.

 Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions And Why They Went Wrong  by Alan Axelrod. ©2008. Sterling Publishing. 358 p. [paper]


I bought this quarter’s recommended books  at hamiltonbook.com for less than $8 apiece.

 

 

 

Recommended reading: Religious Literacy

I began last week suggesting literary nonfiction titles that teachers might find useful to have  of teens and adults read in various courses. Today’s recommendation, however, is a book for educators.

Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t is literary nonfiction aimed primarily at the education community, broadly interpreted to include not only public-school teachers and administrators but also school boards, college administrators, and legislators at the state and federal levels.

Prothero discusses the extent of Americans’ ignorance of religions (including their own) as a civic problem. Ignorance of The King James Bible, for example, renders students incapable of understanding allusions found in virtually every type of fiction and nonfiction.

Prothero argues that religious illiteracy is not only handicapping but downright dangerous. America’s foreign policy is being set by people who have little understanding of the pivotal role religion plays in other cultures’ attitudes and actions, he says.

He contends that Americans cannot confront the challenges facing the nation today—domestic as well as foreign— without an understanding of the role of religion in American and world history.

Prothero refutes popular misconceptions about what legally can and cannot be taught in public schools, and tackles the issue of whether a student can refuse to participate in the pledge of allegiance.

The book includes an 85-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” and a religious literacy quiz with answers.

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero (Harper One. ©2007. 296 p.)

Recommended literary nonfiction reading

3 literary nonfiction books

Note to readers: This post has been revised, I hope for the better.  When I published it April 5, 2019, Internet gremlins duplicated, deleted, and rearranged elements until they the content was unrecognizable.  

Although short literary nonfiction has its place in the academic curriculum, if we are going to attempt to encourage students to become lifelong learners we must have them read some book-length literary nonfiction each year.

The first quarter of 2019 I made a conscious effort to read literary nonfiction that some students might find worth reading. I looked for:

  • tie-ins to courses, current events, and/or students’ experiences
  • good writing that wasn’t stuffy
  • books with at least some images in them
  • books that are widely available through libraries
  • books that are available new at under $10

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip is lighthearted history, fun to read, packed with bits and pieces of historical fact, and illustrated with 1950s photos and cleverly drawn maps.

On Jan. 20, 1953, after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, when back home to Independence, Missouri, as an ordinary citizen.

A few months later Truman got a letter inviting him to speak to the Reserve Officers Association on June 26 in Philadelphia. It seemed the ideal opportunity for Truman and his wife, Bess, to go East to see their daughter, visit old friends, and enjoy the open road.

Truman put the suitcases in the car and the couple took off by themselves, Truman at the wheel, Bess riding shotgun, keeping track of every fill-up, and telling her husband not to drive so fast.

Matthew Algeo uses his pleasant, often funny, nonfiction narrative as a lens through which to examine not just 1950s America, but the way the United States has changed since then.

The book could be used for literary nonfiction reading in social studies, English, art, and graphic design classes.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. (Chicago Review Press, ©2009. 264 p.) 

The Fever of 1721

The Fever of 1721 ties together famous names from American history—Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams—using the story of a Bostonian merchant seaman whose crew had developed smallpox on the trip from England.

By the time John Gore’s brig reached Boston Harbor, one sailor had died, six others were nearly recovered, and Gore had begun showing smallpox symptoms.Gore was dead and buried within 10 days.

The government concealed Gore’s death for fear of creating a panic and for fear of an embargo that would ruin Boston’s economy.

From that beginning, Stephen Coss goes on to discuss the history and politics of vaccination, American-British relations, the history of American newspapers, religion in the colonies, and how the political ramifications of the epidemic laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.

The Fever of 1721 could be used as literary nonfiction reading in English, journalism, history/social studies, science, and health classes. The 1721 controversy surrounding vaccination for smallpox could be compared with the 2019 controversy around measles vaccination.

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ©2016. 350 p.) 

Passages to America

Between 1892 and 1954, two million child immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Another one million child immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.

In Passages to America, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner presents the recollections of some of those people about their immigrant experience as children between the ages of ages four and 16.

Werner organizes the histories by population groups including those from the British Isles, Italians, Scandinavians, Armenians, and escapees from Nazi Germany.

Werner’s book is literary nonfiction for a general audience.   Although Werner was an academic, her prose is clean, clear, and easy to understand.

Passages to America could be literary nonfiction reading in social studies and English classes. Virtually every American student would find some personal connection to some immigrant group mentioned in the text. The pre-1955 immigrant experience offers opportunities for comparisons to the experiences of 21st century immigrants.

Passages to America: Oral Histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island by Emmy E. Werner (Potomac Books. ©2009. 177 p.)

In case you’re curious

I bought all three of the books mentioned here at hamiltonbook.com. I got Passages to America in hardback, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure and The Fever of 1721 in paperback.

I have a couple more volumes of literary nonfiction to tell you about next week.